Tweeting Kansas Teen Gets Apology from Gov. Brownback, Her Following Soars


A Kansas teen who refused to apologize to Gov. Sam Brownback for an insulting tweet got an apology today from the governor himself for his staff’s “over-reaction.”

An unpleasant tweet by Emma Sullivan, 18, was flagged by Brownback’s staff last week. The teen was told by her principal at Shawnee Mission East High School to apologize, but she refused. The national brouhaha has led to her Twitter following soar from 60 to more than 10,000.

“My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms,” Brownback said in a statement.

Sullivan, however, told ABC News she was disappointed that the governor’s office didn’t contact her directly and issue a broader apology.

“My school is owed an apology because his staff put pressure on our school and I don’t think that’s appropriate,” she said. “I think that of course their apology is trying to cover up their negative actions. Just because you say you support free speech doesn’t mean you support it. Saying sorry doesn’t mean it goes away.”

Confronted with a stubborn teenager who insisted on her right to free speech, the school district earlier today dropped its request that Sullivan write an apology and said it will leave that decision up to her. The district also fought back against accusations that it was stifling her freedom of speech.

“The district acknowledges a student’s right to freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally protected. The district has not censored Miss Sullivan nor infringed upon her freedom of speech,” said a statement. “She is not required to write a letter of apology to the Governor. Whether and to whom any apologies are issued will be left to the individuals involved.”

Sullivan had refused to back down, saying over the weekend that an apology would be insincere.

“Emma decided that it wouldn’t be sincere for her to apologize, and she didn’t want to give any more power to the governor,” Sullivan’s sister, Olivia, told ABC News. “If he’s able to control what she says any further, it would be unfortunate that she didn’t get the right to exercise her free speech.”

The trouble for Sullivan began last Monday when she tweeted from a youth event at which Brownback gave a speech.

“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,” she tweeted.

Sullivan neither met Brownback in person, nor did she tell him he sucked. The tweet was spurred by a discussion she was having with a friend, talking about what they would tell Brownback if they were to meet him.

“The tweet was for her audience at the time,” said Olivia Sullivan, 19. “It was a complete joke between her and her friends.”

Not so to Brownback’s office. His team, which monitors comments on Facebook and Twitter containing the governor’s name, reported Sullivan’s tweet to Youth in Government, the program’s organizer.

“That wasn’t respectful,” Brownback’s communications director Sherriene Jones-Sontag said. “It was important for the organization to be aware of the comments their students were making.”

The group in turn reported the incident to Sullivan’s high school. Its principal Karl Krawitz scolded Sullivan and said she should write an apology to Brownback, the Youth in Government program and the district’s social studies coordinator, among others.

Krawitz “laid into me about how this was unacceptable and an embarrassment,” Sullivan told The Wichita Eagle. “He said I had created this huge controversy and everyone was up in arms about it … and now he had to do damage control.”

But the teen said she was not sorry.

“I’ve decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong,” Sullivan tweeted Sunday.

Sullivan’s family stood behind her decision, and blamed the governor’s office for “wasting their time.”

“My parents, first of all, think it was highly inappropriate for the governor’s office to flag her tweet. It was a misuse of their time and a misuse of their power,” Olivia Sullivan said. “There have been worse things said about Gov. Brownback from people who matter much more politically.”

The spat has made Emma Sullivan a twitter star. She’s received an overwhelming amount of support, says sister Olivia, and her twitter followers have jumped to more than 10,000, more than double that of Brownback’s. She had only 60 followers last Monday.

The unlikely matchup sparked national debate and heated criticism.

“Speaking as a taxpayer in Kansas, I’m more than a little annoyed that my government has cut funding for the arts and other programs, but apparently thinks it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars to have the governor’s office troll the Twitter feeds of high school kids to make sure they’re not saying anything mean about him,” wrote Alex Knapp, social media editor at Forbes. “I’m also annoyed that the schools think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars to punish students for what they say on their private Twitter feeds. The whole exercise is absurd.”

Liberals accused Brownback’s team and the principal for stifling free speech.

“It’s troubling that Brownback’s staff is so thin skinned that they felt the need to call down the government’s wrath on a high school student who had the audacity to criticize the governor,” reads a blog from ThinkProgress. “There’s no question that the high school principal violated Sullivan’s First Amendment rights. Although public school students’ right to free speech is not unlimited, schools are generally only allowed to discipline students for speech that is disruptive to the school’s learning environment.”